Nikon D850 or Sony’s A7r III now the #1 camera for Nature Photography? How about Nikon’s Z Mirrorless? Canon’s new R Mirrorless?
For years I’ve shot on Canon (my corp/sports work) and Nikon (Nature/Wildlife/Travel) equipment. That said, there’s some reason to believe Sony may stand atop the podium with Nikon. Here’s why:
The new Sony A7r III brings unique features to the table and has fixed their “battery” problem:
- The A7’s Dynamic Range improved to 15 stops (equaling Nikon’s recording holding top full frame camera the D850). Canon’s choices sit well back at 12 stops (excepting 5D MkIII @ 13.3 stops). For me Dynamic range is a critical consideration allowing the shooter to capture most difficult lighting situations in one shot.
- Sony is considerably lighter and more compact than the Nikon D850 (2/3rds of the weight/.8 lbs. less) or Canon 5D Mk IV.
- Sony’s bread/butter lenses are equal to or better than Canon/Nikon.
- The Sony 16-35mm f2.8 lens (a staple of nature photography) is the highest rated of any full frame manufacturer. The DXO Mark (my independent testing lab of choice) rating of 42, dwarfs Nikon’s 16-35mm F4 (25) while offering one more stop at the same weight. Sony’s lens can also do great celestial work (unlike it’s Nikon counterpart, note the Sony “star eater” issue is now fixed).
- Sony also offers the newly released 24-105mm f4 which is lightweight and sharper than it’s Nikon/Canon counterparts. The Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.5 is more compact, lighter weight and sharper than Nikon or Canon’s versions as well.
- For back button auto-focus: All three Sony lenses have large programmable buttons (side & top) that allow an IMP alternative to back button autofocus. This is a huge advantage when shooting sports. Instead of using the back button on the camera to focus, you have the additional option to use the free hand holding the lens. Ergo, use the right hand for shutter, left hand for focus.
Sony’s digital viewfinder & LCD screen shooters to see a live view histogram with an “on-screen” overexposure warning indicator (see zebra lines below) while composing a shot. This greatly improves work-flow especially during difficult lighting situations (w high dynamic range). It’s a snap to fine-tune your exposure in manual mode. No more mis-exposing and losing great images.
Note: Nikon offers a histogram (but no overexposure warning) in “live view”/Canon offers neither.
Sony’s Focus Peaking provides depth of field information through the digital viewfinder and the rear LCD screen. Your LCD/viewfinder indicates what’s in focus (red outlined area) and what’s not…as you change the aperture. Allows you to fine tune your foreground focus & aperture choice so that your subject near/far is in critically sharp.
Note: Canon doesn’t offer focus peaking, the new Nikon D850 does in “Live-View” (not in viewfinder).
- Sony’s has improved their battery storage by offering 2.2 x more photos per charge. A necessary improvement over the A7r II.
- At 42 MP the Sony provides great resolution on par with the Nikon D850*(46MP) & better than the Canon 5D MkIII(32MP).
- Unlike these to competing products, the Sony offers suburb low light performance. It can handle celestial photography expertly…the same can’t be said of the others (noisy at high ISOs*).
- Anything the new Nikon D850 has over the Sony?
- Onboard focus stacking (a tremendous feature!). The Nikon can be set to take up to 300 photos at successive focus points determined between an inner and outer range. Sony and Canon don’t offer.
- Slightly better focus tracking for fast moving objects.
- Many may prefer the larger Nikon body with larger (more comfortable ergonomics) and optical viewfinder.
Notwithstanding, the great onboard features (dynamic range, on-screen exposure, depth of field) and outstanding lightweight optics make the Sony A7r III a contender for Best Full Frame Nature camera .
Nikon Mirrorless to the rescue?
Hey, what about the new Nikon Mirrorless! We’ve been waiting…waiting…it’s fricken here. I need to towel off!
Err…not so fast. Here’s the good, bad and ugly.
- The Good: 47 MP sensor has awesome resolution. Suspect it will feature great dynamic range as does the D850. The digital viewfinder offers focus peaking, a live view histogram and exposure warning Zebra lines. BAM.
- Pricing: Z7 their flagship model: $3,400. Z6: 24,5MP $2,000
- The not so great.
- All your accumulated Nikon lenses? Sort of worthless…unless you want to place them behind a lame Nikon adapter that’s almost 1.25 inches thick. So much for having a more compact set up. You might as well, use a much smaller Metabones adapter and use those lenses with the Sony?
- Ready to buy the new smaller, lighter, kickassier Nikon mirrorless lenses? You have three choices (two 50mm lenses and a 24-70mm). WTF? That’s it…how incredibly lame.
- Oh yes, in case you’re wondering about battery life. The new Nikon gets 330 shots on a charge (half that if it’s really cold out). Some users claim to get more (do I believe Nikon or their fan base)? Definitely a big potential issue.
- The Z7’s buffer is about 22 shots, meaning if your shooting sports, the camera can bog down. The Sony’s buffer is approx twice that.
- Want a duplicate card slot…sorry only one!
- Bottom line: It took Sony almost 5 years to fully test and work the kinks out of its A7 line. Nikon is starting late and isn’t yet ready for prime time. If you want to own a bomber mirrorless set up…either be prepared for a long long wait (2-3 years) for Nikon to catch up or buy Sony. Then again, in the 3 years, you wait…Sony will continue to innovate.
Canon Mirrorless to the rescue?
We’re not done. Canon has also entered the mirrorless battle with the new R Body. Is this any better than the Nikon? What’s different?
- The Canon @ 30.3 megapixels doesn’t match the Nikon’s (or Sony’s) resolution. It does, however, offer the same in viewfinder options including focus peaking, live histogram, and exposure zebra warning. So far so good!
- Unfortunately, as with Nikon, your old Canon lenses are useless unless you strap on one of three(not kidding) different adapters to your camera(dependant on the kind lens you’re using). So your new compact camera has lenses that stick out like Pinnochio’s nose.
- The newly available mirrorless canon lenses include 50mm F1.2, 35mm F1.8 macro and the 24-105 mm F4. A better line up than Nikon’s Z series, but still pretty skimpy.
- The Canon has a good 47 photo buffer but is very slow to fire off photos in sports mode. When using servo mode with focus tracking you only get 3 pics/sec. Eckkkkk.
- Oh yes, one card slot (eckkk) and no in body image stabilization (lame).
- The price is $2300 or $3,340 with a 24-105mm lens.
Bottom line: Hard to come up with a compelling reason to buy this camera. It’s not ready for prime time. Additionally, we also have no idea if Canon has finally produced a body with great dynamic range (no test results available yet). Canon, as Nikon, has fallen well behind Sony. Not sure they’ll ever catch up.
Sony Field Test (Utah)
I recently returned from 7 days in Utah shooting with the Sony a7r III (16-35, 24-105 & 100-400mm). Here’s my reaction:
- As advertised it’s very easy to dial in the proper exposure through the digital viewfinder (histogram/exposure warning indicator). Saved me a lot of time & avoided the need to do test shots to dial in exposure.
- Focus peaking was also a huge time saver. No more hunting around for the hyperfocal point, checking sharpness by magnifying images on the rear LCD. I was able to confidently shoot at larger apertures and “know” I had critical focus (ergo F11 safely inside most lense’s sweet spot for corner to corner sharpness). The Nikon 850 has this option also, but only on the rear LCD.
- Seldom needed a shutter release. Since I’m not using the mirror lockup option, I could simply use the 2-second timer. Easier not to drag around the appendage.
- I’m accustomed to using my reading glasses to review the data on my rear LCD. The Sony displays all that inside the digital viewfinder (adjust the diopter to get proper eyeglass adjustment). Ergo, I can leave my glasses in my pocket.
Easiest camera to operate I’ve yet used.
News Flash: Sony has recently announced the A7 III. This baby brother to the A7r III features the same basic bells/whistles as the A7r with a smaller 25MP sensor and price tag ($2,000). Because it has lower pixel density on its full frame sensor, the A7 III features significantly better low light performance. Preliminary tests appear to give this camera about a 1.5 stop advantage over its big brother. In English that means the noise generated by the A7r at iso 800, doesn’t appear on the A7 till you’re over 2000.
In fact, I find the A7 III superior to the A7r for sports shooting. Why? Simply because I don’t need the massive file size. That means the buffer fills up more slowly. Ergo I can crank out more shots in a row. Plus because of it’s superior low light performance, I can shoot at even higher ISOs when the sun goes down to stop action without noise. Similarly, the A7 III is a great tool for wildlife and birding for similar reasons. Did I mention it’s the tool of choice for celestial/night shooting!.
Also: My friend Don Smith (& Sony Artisan) has a great video on how to set up the A7r III. Must viewing if you decide to purchase. Don Smith’s Video
SONY HAS A LITTLE KNOWN OPTION FOR USING FOCUS PEAKING IN DIM LIGHT. Great for use in celestial photography. This makes the image so bright you can actually see the Milky Way live on screen! Makes focus peaking a snap.
Here’s how to use. Activate manual focus on your lens and focus peaking. Go to the custom key setting in your camera’s menu and under custom button 2, scroll through the menu and select “bright monitoring”…select.
Then when you have a situation where you need to brighten up your monitor in manual focus mode, just push the C2 button atop your camera to activate Bright Monitoring. Depress the button again to turn off.